Selfishness and weakness

When I’m tired, I’m more selfish. When I was younger and less mature, I was more selfish. When I’m stressed, I’m more selfish. When I’m weakened by sickness, I’m more selfish. When I’m angry, I’m more selfish.

When I am strong and healthy and rested and clear-headed, it is easier to be less selfish.

By selfish, I mean relatively selfish. In the context of my family, I might be biased toward myself, but in the context of a larger community I might be biased toward my family.

And by selfish I mean interpretively willing to twist the facts of the situation to (what I short-sightedly take to be) my advantage. I’m not referring to outright lies, in general, but something less than completely honest. And it usually involves some self-deception as well that allows me to be genuinely indignant if anyone points out my unfairness, and which I am able to recognize, if ever, only after some time has passed and I’m less in the grip of that weakness.

When I am weak (and keep in mind, I don’t just mean morally weak, here; I’m talking about some literal, biological lack of health/strength/energy), I am not somehow suddenly fated to act badly. I can overcome my temporary tendency to selfishness. Many people in miserable conditions show astonishing nobility of character.

But it becomes much harder to see and act beyond those selfish limitations. It becomes more excusable to fall short – more excusable, that is, insofar as it is not my own fault that I’m in that state of weakness. If I’m in that condition because of some choice I made (eg staying up too late for frivolous reasons and finding myself very tired the next day), then I can’t pass the blame for my bad mood, just as the person who drives drunk is not excused for an accident by appeal to drunkenness.

We ought to make it as easy as possible to be the good people we wish to be. That means taking our health and the needs of our body seriously, from day to day and also over the course of years, so far as it is in our power.

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